I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)
The world had ended, and I was the only person who knew it. People walked along the streets as if the pavements hadn’t all crumbled beneath their feet. They pretended to breathe in and out while all the time I knew the air had been sucked away in a monstrous inhalation from God Himself. I alone was suffocating in the nightmare.
The little pleasure I was able to take from the fact that if I could have a baby I obviously wasn’t a lesbian was crowded into my mind’s tiniest corner by the massive pushing in of fear, guilt, and self-revulsion.
For eons, it seemed, I had accepted my plight as the hapless, put-upon victim of fate and the Furies, but this time I had to face the fact that I had brought my new catastrophe upon myself. How was I to blame the innocent man whom I had lured into making love to me? In order to be profoundly dishonest, a person must have one of two qualities: either he is unscrupulously ambitious, or he is unswervingly egocentric. He must believe that for his ends to be served all things and people can justifiably be shifted about, or that he is the center not only of his own world but of the worlds which others inhabit. I had neither element in my personality, so I hefted the burden of pregnancy at sixteen onto my own shoulders where it belonged. Admittedly, I staggered under the weight.
I finally sent a letter to Bailey, who was at sea with the merchant marine. He wrote back, and he cautioned me against telling Mother of my condition. We both knew her to be violently opposed to abortions, and she would very likely order me to quit school. Bailey suggested that if I quit school before getting my high school diploma I’d find it nearly impossible to return.
The first three months, while I was adapting myself to the fact of pregnancy (I didn’t really link pregnancy to the possibility of my having a baby until weeks before my confinement), were a hazy period in which days seemed to lie just below the water level, never emerging fully.
Fortunately, Mother was tied up tighter than Dick’s hatband in the weave of her own life. She noticed me, as usual, out of the corner of her existence. As long as I was healthy, clothed and smiling she felt no need to focus her attention on me. As always, her major concern was to live the life given to her, and her children were expected to do the same. And to do it without too much brouhaha.
Under her loose scrutiny I grew more buxom, and my brown skin smoothed and tight-pored, like pancakes fried on an unoiled skillet. And still she didn’t suspect. Some years before, I had established a code which never varied. I didn’t lie. It was understood that I didn’t lie because I was too proud to be caught and forced to admit that I was capable of a less than Olympian action. Mother must have concluded that since I was above out-and-out lying I was also beyond deceit. She was deceived.
All my motions focalized on pretending to be that guileless schoolgirl who had nothing more wearying to think about than mid-term exams. Strangely enough, I very nearly caught the essence of teenage capriciousness as I played the role. Except that there were times when physically I couldn’t deny to myself that something very important was taking place in my body.
Mornings, I never knew if I would have to jump off the streetcar one step ahead of the warm sea of nausea that threatened to sweep me away. On solid ground, away from the ship-motioned vehicle and the smell of hands coated with recent breakfasts, I regained my balance and waited for the next trolley.
School recovered its lost magic. For the first time since Stamps, information was exciting for itself alone. I burrowed myself into caves of facts, and found delight in the logical resolutions of mathematics.
I credit my new reactions (although I didn’t know at the time that I had learned anything from them) to the fact that during what surely must have been a critical period I was not dragged down by hopelessness. Life had a conveyor-belt quality. It went on unpursued and unpursuing, and my only thought was to remain erect, and keep my secret along with my balance.
Midway along to delivery, Bailey came home and brought me a spun-silver bracelet from South America, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and a slew of new dirty jokes.
As my sixth month approached, Mother left San Francisco for Alaska. She was to open a night club and planned to stay three or four months until it got on its feet. Daddy Clidell was to look after me but I was more or less left on my own recognizance and under the unsteady gaze of our lady roomers.
Mother left the city amid a happy and cheerful send-off party (after all how many Negroes were in Alaska?), and I felt treacherous allowing her to go without informing her that she was soon to be a grandmother.
Two days after V-Day, I stood with the San Francisco Summer School class at Mission High School and received my diploma. That evening, in the bosom of the now-dear family home I uncoiled my fearful secret and in a brave gesture left a note on Daddy Clidell’s bed. It read: Dear Parents, I am sorry to bring this disgrace on the family, but I am pregnant. Marguerite.
The confusion that ensued when I explained to my stepfather that I expected to deliver the baby in three weeks, more or less, was reminiscent of a Molière comedy. Except that it was funny only years later. Daddy Clidell told Mother that I was “three weeks gone.” Mother, regarding me as a woman for the first time, said indignantly, “She’s more than any three weeks.” They both accepted the fact that I was further along than they had first been told but found it nearly impossible to believe that I had carried a baby, eight months and one week, without their being any the wiser.
Mother asked, “Who is the boy?” I told her. She recalled him, faintly.
“Do you want to marry him?”
“Does he want to marry you?” The father had stopped speaking to me during my fourth month.
“Well, that’s that. No use ruining three lives.” There was no overt or subtle condemnation. She was Vivian Baxter Jackson. Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.
Daddy Clidell assured me that I had nothing to worry about. That “women been gittin’ pregnant ever since Eve ate that apple.” He sent one of his waitresses to I. Magnin’s to buy maternity dresses for me. For the next two weeks I whirled around the city going to doctors, taking vitamin shots and pills, buying clothes for the baby, and except for the rare moments alone, enjoying the imminent blessed event.
After a short labor, and without too much pain (I decided that the pain of delivery was overrated), my son was born. Just as gratefulness was confused in my mind with love, so possession became mixed up with motherhood. I had a baby. He was beautiful and mine. Totally mine. No one had bought him for me. No one had helped me endure the sickly gray months. I had had help in the child’s conception, but no one could deny that I had had an immaculate pregnancy.
Totally my possession, and I was afraid to touch him. Home from the hospital, I sat for hours by his bassinet and absorbed his mysterious perfection. His extremities were so dainty they appeared unfinished. Mother handled him easily with the casual confidence of a baby nurse, but I dreaded being forced to change his diapers. Wasn’t I famous for awkwardness? Suppose I let him slip, or put my fingers on that throbbing pulse on the top of his head?
Mother came to my bed one night bringing my three-week-old baby. She pulled the cover back and told me to get up and hold him while she put rubber sheets on my bed. She explained that he was going to sleep with me.
I begged in vain. I was sure to roll over and crush out his life or break those fragile bones. She wouldn’t hear of it, and within minutes the pretty golden baby was lying on his back in the center of my bed, laughing at me.
I lay on the edge of the bed, stiff with fear, and vowed not to sleep all night long. But the eat-sleep routine I had begun in the hospital, and kept up under Mother’s dictatorial command, got the better of me. I dropped off.
My shoulder was shaken gently. Mother whispered, “Maya, wake up. But don’t move.”
I knew immediately that the awakening had to do with the baby. I tensed. “I’m awake.”
She turned the light on and said, “Look at the baby.” My fears were so powerful I couldn’t move to look at the center of the bed. She said again, “Look at the baby.” I didn’t hear sadness in her voice, and that helped me to break the bonds of terror. The baby was no longer in the center of the bed. At first I thought he had moved. But after closer investigation I found that I was lying on my stomach with my arm bent at a right angle. Under the tent of blanket, which was poled by my elbow and forearm, the baby slept touching my side.
Mother whispered, “See, you don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.”
She turned out the light and I patted my son’s body lightly and went back to sleep.